Gaming The System: KU Professor Says 'Call Of Duty' Can Help Teach History

May 10, 2021

Can video games like “Call of Duty: World War II” and “Battlefield 1942” be shaping the way young people view history?

Andrew Denning thinks so.

Denning, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas who teaches a popular course on Nazi Germany, says he’s noticed over the past several years that many of his students became interested in history not from books or movies, but from XBox and PlayStation.

“These entertainments have become far more widespread, much more popular, much more serious in a lot of ways,” Denning said.

“My students and the wider public are very much coming to know Nazi Germany through video games. . . . So I think it’s really important that professional historians really think about this and engage with how those entertainments shape public knowledge of the historical past.”

For an article in the current issue of The American Historical Review, Denning played his way through several video games in the “Wolfenstein” series. He noticed some gaps in how history is presented, but said he also saw new ways to talk to students about World War II and the Third Reich.

For example, an alternate-history setting in one game shows a post-war Europe and United States in which Germany had won the war. Nazi flags fly boldly in the streets. And after dropping nuclear bombs over Manhattan, the Nazis find collaborators in the Ku Klux Klan.

“Obviously this is not operating in the realm of historical realism,” Denning said. “But it works really well in kind of cluing students in to certain aspects of the Nazi regime.

“It becomes a point where I can really speak with students about some common connections that they might not have realized existed. . . a kind of global white supremacy, a global racism that was sort of operative during World War II.”

Historically-based video and computer games are not new. Denning, 37, is part of what some call the “Oregon Trail generation” — children born during the pocket between Gen X and Millennials who grew up playing the Apple II video game in their school computer labs.

“I remember playing ‘Oregon Trail’ nominally to learn about the frontier and the settlement of the West by white Americans in the 19th century,” he said. “But of course all I cared about was getting into hunting situations, trying to take down a buffalo and figure out how much of it I could put in my wagon.”

Whether it’s “Oregon Trail” or “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” video games mesh entertainment with history in a way that history teachers should pay attention to, Denning says.

“We should be thinking about this as perhaps value-added, in ways that we might try to ‘game-ify’ our own study of history,” he said.

“We should be understanding where they’re getting their information, the strengths and weaknesses of that information, the depths of it, and the blind spots of it. And sort of working from that point to better understand the public knowledge and . . . to better shape that knowledge as well.”